The World is a Book: A Page in Rwanda

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine Lydia Hsu comes from the 10-square mile patch of green in upstate New York that calls itself home to Cornell University – otherwise known as Ithaca, New York. Since middle school, she has wanted to pursue a career in teaching English, but after taking her first class on Africa at Northwestern with Professor Glassman, she decided to major in both English Literature and African Studies and pursue a Secondary Teaching Certification through SESP. Outside of classes, she divides her time between work, student groups, and play. She is a teaching assistant for the Center for Talent Development and a Jumpstart Corps Member at Howard Area Community Center. She serves as the Events Coordinator for the African Students Association, the leader of the Undergraduate Africa Seminar, the African Studies Representative on the Weinberg Student Advisory Board, and the Publicity Chair for TOMCats. Outside of all of this, she enjoys nighttime walks on the lake fill, Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony Orchestra performances, days spent at the Art Institute, and spontaneous Red Mango runs. This summer, she will turn another page and go to Rwanda to teach English at Network for Africa’s Learning Centre in Kigali. This project unites all three of her academic interests – English, African Studies, and Secondary Education – in the goal of creating and implementing an ELL curriculum for students at the school. She will not only have the opportunity to take what she has learned about Rwanda and English education to develop an ELL curriculum, but she will also have the chance to challenge and supplement what she has learned to enrich her understanding of Rwanda and expand her experience as an English teacher – both of which she hopes will give her a glimpse of what she eventually plans to do for the long-term. GRANT: Lydia is travelling on an Immersion Experience Grant given by the Office of the Provost. This grant offers $2,000 of support for students engaged in intensive summer experiences, whether based domestically or internationally. For more information about the grant, go to:

First day at the Learning Centre


A view of Kigali

My first full day in Kigali:

  1. I wake up late, completely jet-lagged and tangled in my mosquito net
  2. Run to the “shower” which is really a(n unpredictable) trickle of lukewarm water from a rusty faucet head. No curtain. Seriously consider chopping off all my hair to save time.
  3. Take my first taxi-moto for 400 RWF to Novotel (Laico hotel). SO TERRIFYING the first time because they go SO FAST, but I’ve grown quite accustomed to it! (JS – you better be learning how to ride a motorcycle, because I’m going to want to learn when I get back!!!)
  4. 10-minute walk to the Learning Centre at Solace Ministries

    Hotel des Milles Collines, also known as "Hotel Rwanda"

  5. Meet Moses Kiyendeye, the school director, who informs me that he wants me to teach the Beginner’s class, but if I am adamant about teaching Intermediate I will have to co-teach with Eric, a local Rwandan teacher. This comes as a total surprise and I decide to observe the Intermediate class and see whether this will be feasible. Moses introduces me to Eric, the Intermediate class instructor.

    A local Rwandan artist's studio

Summary of subsequent dialogue with the class:

Me: “Hi! My name is Lydia. I am a student at Northwestern University which is close to Chicago in the United States. At the university, I study English, African Studies, and Education. I will be teaching at the Learning Centre for the next two months, and I am very excited to get to know all of you.”

Students (sample): “My name is William. I am twenty-six years old. I am single. My favorite food is meat. My favorite sport is soccer.”

NOTE: 1) Apparently it is customary in Rwanda to be very open about one’s relationship status even when first meeting someone 2) Nearly all my students specified that their favorite food was “meat.” When asked “What kind of meat? Beef? Chicken? pork?” Most responded: “ALL meat.”

Me: “Do you have any questions for me?”

Students: “Are you single?”

Me: “Yes, I am single. Happily single.”

Students: “Are you married?”

Me (confused): “No, I am not married. I am single.”

Students (confused): “You do not have a husband?”

Me (confused): “No, I do not have a husband. I am SINGLE.”

Students (confused): “Then why do you wear that ring on your hand?”

Me (dawn of realization): [I explain that I wear a ring on my left hand ring finger because it is angled to fit on my left hand and it doesn’t fit on any other finger]

Students (indignant): “But you are not married! [They explain to me (again) that you can only wear a ring on your ring finger if you are married]”

Me (at a loss): “…”

Eric intervenes and begins the lesson.

I sit in the back and observe as the students listen to a recording and then answer multiple choice questions. Eric seems like he has a good handle on the class, but the teaching materials are … not ideal. The recording is an interview of a food critic who discusses how restaurant owners do not realize that customers often value “ambiance and quality of service” over “efficiency.” The subject of the dialogue includes terms such as “manual dexterity” which seem impractical and unnecessarily challenging to these intermediate students – many of whom have trouble even formulating complete sentences.

I went on a safari and walked up to a giraffe!

I find that Eric does not always follow the teacher’s manual that he is using. For instance, when the students are asked to give advice using the structure “If I were you …” Eric tells the students that their responses should follow “If I were you, I will…” His explanation: since “If I were you” is “past,” the following clause must be in “present.” The English major in me indignantly wants to cry out “It’s ‘If I were you, I would’” but I remain silent. I realize that it will be very challenging to co-teach and that it will give me little opportunity to use the curriculum that I have prepared.

After class, Moses expresses again that he would prefer for me to teach the beginner’s class because the intermediate class already has Eric as an instructor. I accept the proposition – but not without reservations – obviously, I do not speak Kinyarwanda and teaching the beginner’s class will require a very different curriculum from the one I have prepared. I tell Moses that I will observe the class on Friday and see if it is feasible.

I am so overwhelmed by the unexpectedness of the situation and distraught over my inability to do anything about it. I talk to Ioana, a volunteer who taught English at the Learning Centre last summer. Ioana listens patiently and says to me, “Don’t expect anything to go the way you want it to. Because it won’t. You just need to be ready for anything and take things as they come.”

These are the wise words that have kept me going.

A Kigali sunset from my front porch

Although I was initially disappointed about the situation, things definitely brightened up in the afternoon. The students have English instruction from 8:30 AM to noon everyday, and from noon to 2:00 PM, they take classes in baking, computers, or music. I spent a wonderful two hours helping students to play their first C-major scales and I was reminded once again why I love teaching. It is so gratifying when you can witness a student’s mastery of a skill or concept and get to share in the moment of success.

So that concluded my first day at the Learning Centre. Afterwards, I met up with some friends and drove around town, attended a Belgian citizens’ party, ate dinner at a Chinese restaurant (yeah, my first real meal here and I couldn’t eat anything except for plain rice. MSG-allergy = :(), met up with some Congolese musicians for drinks, and finally, bed.

URUGENDO RWIZA (Have a good night!) from Kigali 🙂

MURAHO from Kigali!

First plane to Rome

I am FINALLY in Kigali 🙂 🙂

Just getting here has been such an adventure and I met so many wonderful people on the way!

Sitting next to me from Washington Dulles to Addis Ababa was the sweetest Ethiopian lady who encouraged me to stay in Ethiopia with her. Most interesting tidbit – she’d been all over Europe and the States but has never traveled outside of Ethiopia to the rest of Africa. According to her, “Ethiopia is Africa.”

Ethiopian Airlines served me wine with dinner!

Touchdown in Kigali!

I also met the director of World Vision in DRC who was kind enough to help me locate my baggage once I got to Kigali and nearly freaked out when they closed the baggage lines. Turns out that (contrary to the repeated assurances of Ethiopian Airline reps) my suitcases arrived a day before on the flight I was supposed to have taken to Kigali.

So, according to my friend Belise, I arrived in Kigali on the worst possible day: the first day of political campaigning for the August presidential election. The first thing I saw upon exiting the airport were lines of trucks filled with armed soldiers and roads packed with cars trying to get to the stadium. Apparently (and unfortunately), the three “oppositional candidates” to Kagame were former members of his staff (i.e. this is a pretense at an election…go figure). Oh well, I suppose it’ll still be interesting to see politics at work while I’m here even if Kagame has pretty much already determined the results.

Other than that, I really like the house I am staying in – even if the faucets don’t always work and I am currently taking refuge under my mosquito net – and I’m super excited to have my own room (for the first time in my life!) and be able to wake up every morning to a scenic view of Kigali (pictures to come). I still can’t really process that I’m finally here after years of wanting to be here, months of applying for grants, and days of traveling disasters. Life is good.

Tomorrow morning I will visit the Learning Centre and meet my students for the first time. Can’t wait to tell you all about it!!

Turn that frown upside down!

Good bye Chicago!

After two missed flights/connections, hours on hold waiting for my travel agency to rebook a flight, an overnight stay at Lansdowne Resort in D.C., and an hour waiting for Ethiopian Airlines to relocate my luggage – I am finally sitting at Gate D23, where I am supposed to be, getting ready to board Flight 503 to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Thank. God.

Overnight stay at Lansdowne Resort in D.C.

I think it was somewhere between having a nervous breakdown from having missed the first flight out to Dulles and realizing that my re-booked flight to Dulles had “technical” issues and I wasn’t going to make it to Ethiopia after all, that I suddenly began to laugh and see the whole ordeal as, how my friend aptly put it, “a comedy of errors.”

It really was.

Between running around the airport, ensuring my baggage had been transferred, and rescheduling my pick-up from Kigali, so much else that could go wrong did go wrong – my cell phone died, it started to thunderstorm in D.C., they crammed people like sardines into a suffocating van for a 30-minute ride to the hotel – but through it all, I am SO GLAD things worked out the way they did. I had many more hours to say goodbye to my friends and family, I was able to send last-minute text messages to try to keep a friendship from falling apart, I called my grandma, I put my United food voucher to good use. In addition, I am so glad I was the inefficient packer that I was and still brought a change of clothes, toiletries, everything despite the rolled eyes and skepticism of (ahem) certain friends (insert smug “i-told-you-so”). I’m also delighted that I will be arriving in Kigali at noon on Tuesday, instead of 1:45 AM, so I can see the city as I land!

I had all my attention focused on my projects in Kigali that I never anticipated encountering problems just getting out of the country – even just from O’Hare to Dulles. For a moment yesterday, I admit I had doubts and I asked my dad, a pastor, “Why is all of this happening?” His response: “I don’t think God is trying to prevent you from going to Rwanda, but maybe he is humbling you to prepare you for the challenges to come.”

Dear God, if that really is Your intention, You’re on the right track. Now, instead of panicking when things go wrong, I laugh. I am learning to be surprised by nothing so that I can be ready for everything.

Ups, Downs, Lessons, Thank Yous

My suitcase was exactly 50.0 lb!

Yeah, I missed my first flight.

My (first) changed flight!

I’d originally planned to write my next post once I got to Kigali, but United Airways (for a variety of reasons) booked me onto the next flight to Dulles at 4:00 PM. Anyway, I’m sitting at O’Hare right now munching on blueberries and trying to process the strange idea that I will be landing in Kigali at 1:45 AM July 20 – that is, approximately 30 hours from now on Tuesday morning.

The past few weeks have been a blur of fireworks, BBQs, sunny days in downtown Chicago, Picasso, crazy CTD kids, and lots (and lots) of ice cream, punctuated by the occasional disastrous circumstance and several pleasant surprises. The adventure of the summer hasn’t yet begun, but so much has happened before Rwanda that I already know will have a significant impact on my experience in the following two months.

As with every project, this one has had its share of (sometimes comical, sometimes really not) low points, challenges, and lessons. Here are some I have learned thus far:

  • Do not drop your netbook. Especially after only a couple weeks of purchasing it. Especially when you only have one week left before leaving for Africa.
  • Evaluate your budget and suitcase space before agreeing to pack much needed school supplies and baking goods to Kigali. Reasons why: it is a) expensive, b) takes up a lot of room, c) weighs a lot.
  • (a corollary of 2) If you don’t do 2) you will likely be broke by the end of the summer and have to personally contribute $1000 to the trip (i.e. Goodbye CTD earnings).
  • Do not expect to have enough time to see and say goodbye to people you may never see again 🙁
  • Raid the dollar store.
  • Anticipate that research from outside of the country will be difficult to conduct. Especially when you’re trying to research primary education in Rwanda and the Ministry of Education’s website is down.
  • And, of course, the most recent lesson: it is not worth getting upset over flight issues. It just isn’t.

Basically, I’ve realized that anything can happen and I’m learning to take it all into stride and keep myself grounded on what’s most important.

That said, I can say with certainty that the highs have definitely outweighed the lows, and the sunny, gelato-mango-laughter-filled days more than make-up for the frustrating and disappointing moments that already seem to define my project. As busy as the past three weeks have been, they have also been an amazing period of healing and self-discovery. It turns out you can learn a lot about yourself in just two and a half weeks and radically change long-standing perspectives on life, future aspirations, love, and people – sometimes just over a breakfast of syrup-soaked German pancakes and mangoes (yes, these will feature heavily in my posts, although the ones mentioned this time were admittedly a little under-ripe).

I’ve met many amazing people in this first stage of my journey, and I’ve realized more and more just how much I need and rely upon my friends. I could not have come so far without the constant care and encouragement of my closest friends (D, N, 3Js), nor could I have stayed mentally sane and prepared without the many supportive phone calls and visits I’ve received in the past few days (shout out to LN, TD, WK, MV, and RS!). There are so many people to thank and to be grateful for. Who would have thought that a random encounter last year could lead to an introduction that would eventually bring me to two volunteers and a job offer in Rwanda? I am so blessed by all the people who have helped to make this dream into a tangible reality, especially one particular person (you know who you are) who has been there every step of the way for the past few weeks and has lost sleep, ran numerous errands, made tons of phone calls, packed my suitcases, and basically kept track of everything I was supposed to do (but was too frazzled and scatter-brained to do). Thank you. Gelato says hi.

With that, I am going to board my first flight to D.C.!

See you again soon – or, as they say in Rwanda, TURONGERA 🙂


“Ms. Lydia, David won’t leave me alone and he drew on my paper! Will you tell him to shut up?”

“Ms. Lydia, can I use the bathroom?”

“Ms. Lydia! Ms. Lydia! Cynnie’s on facebook and she’s texts and webcams all the time. You said I couldn’t do that, why can she?”

While I tell David to relocate to another desk, nod at Rohith to use the bathroom, reprimand Cynnie for inappropriate web usage, and remind my 8th and 9th grade students to “Shhhhh please be quiet, this is the library” – I grow increasingly aware of how different my students will look and behave in little over a week. For one thing, my Rwandan students will be 17 through 45 years old; for another, most of them will be widows or orphans from the 1994 genocide; in addition, most will have only a basic handle of English and survive on just one meal a day – among other things.

It is the second week of the Center for Talent Development (CTD) Summer Program and I have just walked my students back to Allison and submitted their mid-session reports. I am sitting in Whole Foods like I have for the past two weeks, eating two champagne mangoes (they’re 5 for $4 right now!) and checking my email for updates from contacts in Rwanda. The summer program is finally winding down and as I ease into the end of my 3rd year as a TA for CTD, my anticipation and excitement for Rwanda have reached feverish proportions. Between guiding my 8th and 9th grade students on research papers about luck in science, child labor, and grade inflation, I have also been preparing a very different curriculum for adults on grammar usage, basic conversational phrases, and sentence structure.

A view of the city from Tribune Tower

I am very excited about the three projects I will be conducting during my two-month stay in Kigali.

1. Develop an English Language curriculum for the Intermediate class at the Network for Africa Learning Centre. (Immersion Experience Grant)

2. Research primary education in Rwanda, focusing on the government’s current efforts to make it universal, comparing and contrasting the public and private school system, surveying and interviewing school administrators, teachers, and students. (Africa Research Leadership Grant)

3. Examine and amass Rwandan literature written in English (especially pertaining to the 1994 genocide), to examine the novel form through the lens of postcolonial literature and trauma theory. Best part about this is that if I find ANYTHING in Rwanda that isn’t in Northwestern’s Africana Library, I can bring it back and be reimbursed (for baggage fees too!) (English Honors Thesis)

While my CTD kids research their individual projects for class, I’ve been conducting my own research on primary education in Rwanda and Rwandan literature. I have gotten in touch with several important contacts, among whom are various primary school directors, two Cornell professors that helped to draft the 2003 Constitution of Rwanda, a Peace Corps worker stationed in Kigali, and the Vice Chair of the Rwandan Writers Association who has also published two novels and has contacts in the Ministry of Education.

A couple last minute requests as I start packing –

The school director has sent me a list of needed items at the school. If you are willing to donate any of these items, please let me know ASAP!!! They will go to a very good cause 🙂


whiteboard markers


ink cartridges (21 and 22)

postcards of places in the U.S.


I know … it looks a little bit random, but this is the list that they sent me, so please let me know if you have any of those items that you’d be willing to donate!

And just to close this post – here’s a picture that I snapped last week. CHICAGO, I WILL MISS YOU.

On “Hotel Rwanda” and Concerned Grandparents

I watched Hotel Rwanda for the first time today, after months of prodding from my parents and friends. Although I haven’t quite decided how I feel about the film, there was one particular scene that caught my attention.

*Excerpt taken from Hotel Rwanda (2004): Shooting script. Written by: Pearson, Keir, fl. 1991-2007; George, Terry, 1952-. Electronic Edition by Alexander Street Press, L.L. C., 2009.Screenplay by Keir Pearson and Terry George, Copyright © 2004. Reproduced by permission of Newmarket Press.


Jack sits at the bar, talking with BENEDICT KIRANJA, a Kigali journalist. Paul is nearby.

JACK: So, what is the actual difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi?

BENEDICT: According to the Belgian colonists, the Tutsis are taller and more elegant. It was the Belgians that created the division.

JACK: How?

BENEDICT: They picked people. . .those with thinner noses, lighter skin. They used to measure the width of people’s noses. The Belgians used the Tutsis to run the country. Then, when they left, they left the power to the Hutus. And of course, the Hutus took revenge on the elite Tutsis for years of repression.

Behind them David, the reporter, speaks with General Bizimungu.

BENEDICT: Am I telling the truth, Paul?

PAUL: Yes, unfortunately.

The film discounts ethnic difference and subscribes to the current Rwandan government’s assertion that Hutu and Tutsi ethnic identities were the product of European colonial discrimination rather than identities with a historical basis. As Kenneth Harrow observes in “Un train peut en cacher un autre: Narrating the Rwandan Genocide and Hotel Rwanda,” this approach reduces the narrative of the genocide to a “classical binary struggle between good and evil” which has significant implications in terms of understanding the reasons behind the genocide. If there is no visible distinction between Tutsi and Hutu, then “there is no viable ground currently for the Hutu extremists’ hatred, then the difference that has to be constructed to account for the real reasons for the genocide is between those who are evil and those who are good, executioners and victims, rather than between those occupying different positions of economic advantage, or those whose difference has an historical basis,” says Harrow. In other words, this approach fails to recognize the intricate matrix of political, historical, social, and economic factors behind the mounting tensions and fears that led up to the 1994 genocide.

This approach is the counter-narrative to the conception of the genocide as the product of “ancient tribal hatreds,” which stems from a Western understanding of Africa as inherently uncivilized and naturally disposed to conflict and violence.

After watching Hotel Rwanda, I received a call from my mom, who told me that she had just gotten in a huge fight with my grandparents. Apparently, my grandparents had sent my mom an article about a girl who had been gang-raped in Africa (not sure which country) and were furious that my mom was still allowing me to go to Rwanda. “What kind of mother are you?” they demanded, “How could you let her go? She’ll be gang-raped.”

Although a large part of my motivation for this project stems from a desire to teach and an eagerness to finally go to the country that I have studied for the past three years, I am also motivated by a desire to dismantle many of the fears and prejudices about Africa that are widely held by those who are close to me. I hope that through this project and this experience, my grandparents and many of my friends will no longer view Africa as “one Africa” riddled with barbarism, conflict, and primitiveness. I hope that they will no longer accept media presentations of Africa as “the other” and view Africa as a continent of jungles, diseases, and misery. I have been challenged in my own perceptions of Africa through my studies at Northwestern, and I know that these revised perceptions will continue to be challenged and dismantled once I get to Rwanda. My hope is that the clarification of my own beliefs and perceptions will also impart some clarification on the views of those around me.

Preview: Living Accommodations


MURAHO! (Hello! in Kinyarwanda)

I’m still in Evanston, but I finally figured out my living accommodations for the next two months!

For 400 USD a month, I get a room in a house where “everything is included (gardens, a housemaid that comes 3 times per week, internet, washing machine).” Here are some pictures!

Front view of the house

Living room

View from the terrace


Have books? DONATE!

I dropped by Borders today and discovered a clearance section with $1 classics. The cashier was very amused as I made trips back and forth with armfuls of books to price check. Every time he scanned a book and it showed up as $1, I’d jump up and down and say “Really? Are you serious?” until finally he just looked at me and said, “Yes, ma’am they are all $1.”

I left Borders with three giant bags of cookbooks and multiple copies of classics that included Robinson Crusoe, The Scarlet Letter, and Villette.

I am trying to amass the following books for a much-needed library at the Kigali Learning Center.

  1. picture dictionaries + CD
  2. dialogue books + CD
  3. simple story books + CD
  4. self teaching English videos
  5. writing letters books
  6. resume/ CV books
  7. simple history books
  8. simple theater books
  9. comprehensive books +CD
  10. reference books

If you have any books that you want to donate, please let me know.

You can post to this blog or email me at

I will be on campus until July 18. Thanks!

On Education

Many people have asked me, “Why are you teaching English in Rwanda? What makes you think that the Rwandan people need to know English? What qualifications and what right do you have to take what you have learned here to teach students there?”

My response to these questions has always come from an educational angle. While I may not necessarily agree or disagree with the Rwandan government that English language learning is among the top priorities in education (as opposed to entrepreneurship, for instance), I do firmly believe that the key to solving many societal ills is through education. As such, I wholeheartedly support the Rwandan government’s investment and dedication to education, and am excited to play a part in reconstruction efforts at the educational level.

That said – I have quickly realized the many implications of coming from a Westernized perspective to teach students that I do not know in a place I have never been.

CASE IN POINT: In my first project proposal, I highly stressed the importance of encouraging dialogue about past and current historical events in the English curriculum to make it more relevant and meaningful to students, especially in light of the upcoming elections. However, I received an immediate response from the coordinator of Network for Africa requesting for me to remove the “history component” from the proposal because “It is still very sensitive to teach Rwandese history and the history of the genocide … Rwanda is a closely monitored state and I would not want you to put your safety at risk or the reputation of Solace Ministries and Network for Africa.”

I was embarrassed and immediately humbled by my ignorance. Who am I to come in asserting that I know anything about how to teach English in Rwanda?

What I’ve come to realize is this: No matter how much time and energy I put into crafting an English curriculum during the next month, it is very probable that once I get to Rwanda, I will have to throw everything out. Regardless of the methodology or approach that I take to teaching, one fundamental tenet of my philosophy of education will always trump everything else – EDUCATION IS ABOUT THE STUDENTS.

My primary goal as a teacher is to shape instruction to the needs of the students. Everything else comes second.

I’m a Senior(???) and Preparation for Rwanda

As celebrations and farewell parties mark the end of my third year at Northwestern, travel vaccines and hours spent browsing (Kigali’s form of mark the beginning of an exciting upcoming three months that promise to be drastically different from any summer vacation I’ve ever had in my life. For one thing, this summer won’t be a vacation. At least not in the complete definition of the term. I know that it will be exciting and that it will involve travel, but this summer won’t, by any means, be a suspension from work. On the contrary, I anticipate that I will be working – and working harder than I ever have – on the most meaningful and challenging project I have ever undertaken.

I’ve become increasingly aware of the amount of preparation I will need in the next month. I’ve purchased my plane tickets, gotten all the vaccines, picked up the prescriptions, received the up-to-date report on students at the Learning Centre, selected leftover books from the library book sale, etc. etc. But the closer that July 18 approaches, the more I realize how completely unprepared I am to go to Rwanda. I’ve spent three years at Northwestern and taken numerous African Studies classes which have not only taught me a great deal about Rwanda, but have also provided the opportunity for me to develop my own research projects about the country. However, I realize I still know so very little about the culture, the people, and the current political situation.

For instance, I only learned a couple months ago that the teaching of history has been banned in Rwanda since the 1994 genocide – which has had rather significant implications for the English curriculum I am developing. I also learned just two days ago that I can’t use my malaria prescription from Guatemala, because the mosquitoes in Rwanda have already become resilient to it. (This was exceedingly bad news to me since mosquitoes are at the top of my list for creatures I detest most. Anyone have suggestions for extremely powerful mosquito repellent?)

My challenge, as such, for the next two months is this: 1) to learn as much about Rwanda as I can, especially in light of the upcoming presidential election, 2) to develop an English learning curriculum for the Intermediate class.

Here’s to a busy month of learning and preparation ahead!

Congrats to everybody for finishing another year. I hope you’ll stay posted and keep in touch. All comments are welcome and greatly appreciated 🙂